New York

Jamie Isenstein

“Live” art is for the living; by extension, it can die. Narratives around performance art have begun to adopt the language of endangered-species programs, with words like re-creation and preservation becoming switch points for whole epistemological struggles. For Jamie Isenstein, whose signature style features sculptures that use parts of her own living body as material, mortality itself is the linchpin. Some of her is always already gone: In Magic Fingers, 2003, for instance, Isenstein sits hidden behind a wall and displays only her hand, shown in a gilded frame, as it assumes various poses adapted from paintings and sculptures in an art-history textbook; in Saw the Lady, 2007, she lies largely immobile for long stretches of time in the bottom half of a magician’s trick box, “headless,” with only her feet protruding. When Isenstein is not present to “flesh out” her sculptures, she places a sign—WILL RETURN or some such—as a promise that she’ll be back. The proleptic implication is that someday she won’t be back, and the sculpture will sit there, forever incomplete, the vita brevis serving as a check to the ars longa.

“ ”, the title of Isenstein’s second solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery, played on this deferred absence. The witty disappearing act also signaled the extent to which humor lubricates nearly every aspect of Isenstein’s art. This is vanitas without the gravitas. Another key to her (black) comedy is the gallery sign-in book, whose cover is embossed, in spooky lettering, with the words BOOK OF THE DEAD. A collection of sixteen such books from prior exhibitions (2005–10) was the first work visitors encountered in the show, a display pile of unwitting, doomed cosigners.

In this gallows/gallery-humor vein, Dancing Pop-Up Fishing Sculpture, 2010—the clownishly abstract, patchwork, glued fabric object constituting the show’s main event—riffs on both figurative and non-representational sculpture. When Isenstein is inside the work, as she was, with short breaks, on most days of the exhibition’s run, one fishnet-clad leg dangles over the sculpture’s pedestal, and one arm protrudes, holding a life preserver printed with the words WISHIN’ I WAS FISHIN’; in her absence, another preserver (GONE FISHING) is set atop the object. While Isenstein is not the first to marry sculpture and tableau vivant (Gilbert & George’s Singing Sculpture, 1969, is a notable predecessor, though Charles Ray’s In Memory of Sadat, 1981, offers the clearest antecedent), it’s possible that she is the first to sell the two together. Collectors who purchase her “live” sculptures can ask her to take her place in them anytime, anywhere (within, one presumes, certain reasonable—is that the right word here?—limits).

Given her occupation of the intersection of sculpture and performance, Isenstein has often been careful when considering the ways in which her work is represented, a fact that has encouraged her to pursue other novel interventions in sculptural practice. Speaking on a panel last October about her contribution to the exhibition “One Minute More” at the Kitchen in New York, the artist addressed a question about why she didn’t videotape her “performances”—i.e., the “live” component of her sculptures—by deferring to tautology. “I wouldn’t show a video of sculpture because why would you show a video of sculpture?” Pause. “I mean, maybe I might. . . .” In the Kreps exhibition this is exactly what she did, constructing Installation Shots (axe, harp, log), 2010, itself an installation (appropriately “meta’d” in any photographic reproduction for publication) comprising three projectors, on pedestals, beaming looped HD videos of static sculptures— the titular ax, harp, and log—also on pedestals. The joke is a wry, redundant one that tests the limits of the expanded field: Sculpture that can “die” is shown alongside sculpture that can be “turned off.” According to Isenstein’s logic, the objects “perform” by virtue of being on camera, and as such, Installation Shots (like her “live” sculptures) challenges generic ways of looking at animate and inanimate objects. Between this still life and that inert matter, however, lies the unbridgeable chasm from which Isenstein teases her uncanny art.

David Velasco